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What the Oscars Don't Tell Us About Race in America

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Jami Floyd

I had lunch with Jesse Eisenberg a couple of years ago. Nice kid. Totally unassuming. He told me he got into acting to conquer his shyness. Who knew he’d ever be nominated for an Oscar? Well, I guess I did, because he’d just turned in an incredible performance with Richard Gere and Terrence Howard in The Hunting Party, a true story about three reporters in war-torn Bosnia. 

We talked about race and casting. Terrence Howard is black, of course. The real cameraman in the story was white. Some people at the table thought race should have mattered in the casting. Jesse did not.

Fast forward to 2011. I have only seen Jesse Eisenberg once since that lunch. When the Oscar nominations were announced, however, I was crossing my fingers for him. I was very pleased to hear his name, but I was not pleased about something else: this year’s crop is entirely lacking in diversity. 

I love “the pictures” as my grandmother called them. But this is not my grandmother’s America. The United States in 2011 is a diverse country. While the majority of the more than 300 million people currently living in this country are white Americans, 47 million Americans now define themselves as “Hispanic” or “Latino.”

Immigration to the United States is, in large part, what has produced our diversity, and will continue to change our ethnic and racial makeup. The Census Bureau projects that by 2042, non-hispanic Whites will no longer make up the majority of the population. 

But there are stories beyond the stories of immigrants. There are the people who were here first: The indigenous peoples of the Americas, such as the American Indians that now number about 2.4 million. On the census, another 2.3 million (like me) declare part-American Indian or Alaskan Native ancestry. (And this is in addition to the Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders who make up about 0.14 percent of the population.)

And then there is the rich history of the slave trade. About 12.4 percent of the American people (that’s 37.6 million) are African American.

All of which speaks to the larger political issue that we were discussing at lunch that day back in 2007: Race in casting, race at the Oscars, race in America. There are no black actors nominated this year; no brown filmmakers represented; there are no producers of color.

Hattie McDaniel was the first African American to ever be nominated or to win an Oscar. Not so ironically, she won for her role as the Mammy in Gone with the Wind. This morning on The Takeaway, they played a brief diversity montage of Oscar winners: Morgan Freeman for Million Dollar Baby; Cuba Gooding, Jr., for his role in Jerry McGuireSlum Dog Millionaire; Denzel Washington for Training Day; and Precious. Clearly, America will respond to well-told narratives from diverse perspectives. 

Yet too often, the stories black and brown (and women) filmmakers want to tell cannot get a green light. Studios do not want to take the chance on a story that is out of what they perceive to be the mainstream. So, come Oscar time, you don’t see diversity—in front of the camera, or behind it.

Starting with Hattie McDaniel’s win in 1939, there have been a total of thirteen awards for black performances in Oscar’s 83-year history. And it counts Denzel Washington twice. 

A lot of people will say, why all the focus on ethnic heritage, race and difference? Just go see a movie and enjoy it. 

Well, I do. I absolutely love the movies. But take a moment to consider our perspective—those of us who are different, who are so rarely represented on the big screen, so rarely celebrated at the Oscars. Think about a lifetime never seeing, in serious dramatic representations, someone who looks quite like you do. 

One listener comment on suggests that the Oscars do not matter. But they do matter. The Oscars are recognition from The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences of those films, actors, and directors the industry most values. We can say we don’t care, but we do.

Time and time again—all too often—the Academy has said to its black and brown members, and to Americans watching at home, we do not value your contribution. 

My agent friends in Hollywood shake their heads and tell me, if it is not a part specifically written for or about a black character, meaty dramatic roles, which are beloved by the Academy, will not go to actors of color.

The result: People who are not white are cast in comedies for adults or animated movies for children—movies that don’t win Oscars; African American actors don’t get the recognition they deserve; and the image of people of color as significant beyond comedy and comic strips does not change. 

But perhaps the future is bright.

First, there are exceptions. Denzel Washington and Will Smith seem to live in a post-racial America, even if the rest of Hollywood does not. They seem to have transcended race in casting. Eventually, we can hope, their exceptional example will swallow the rule.  

And then there is a shy kid, his almost-certain Oscar for The Social Network, and that honest conversation about race in America all those years ago. The film, with eight nominations, is also a frontrunner for Best Picture this year. It holds out hope for the future. 

Despite the brilliant casting of Jesse Eisenberg in the lead, there has been a bit of online brooding about the casting of Andrew Garfield and Max Minghella, two Englishmen, in the roles of Facebook founder Eduardo Saverin (a Brazilian in real life) and Divya Narendra (an Indian American).

Still, among Oscar contenders, the The Social Network has, far and away, the most diverse cast, by virtue of its subject matter and location: Harvard. And it offers an unusual sight in Hollywood: Asian faces. Even though the story isn't about race, a prominent secondary character is Indian, and Brenda Song appears as a love interest (albeit a whacky one) for the Zuckerberg character.  It’s about time. The Asian American population is 13.4 million. 

The Social Network also has something the other contenders do not: Youth appeal. This movie speaks to our future—a future in which race matters less, and movies reflect the real America.

Jami Floyd is an attorney, broadcast journalist and legal analyst for cable and network news, and is a frequent contributor to WNYC Radio. She is former advisor in the Clinton administration and served as a surrogate for the Obama campaign on legal and domestic policy issues.